We know the Bible teaches servant leadership. Right? Ever since Robert Greenleaf gave the idea traction in the business and ministry lexicon — the idea obviously preceded him, though he gave it substance that caught on in our popular culture — it’s come to be synonymous with “biblical leadership.”  My problem is that proponents refer to a limited list of scriptures to prove their point. I’m not arguing that it’s not a good leadership practice, I’m not arguing that it’s not a biblical model, and I’m not arguing that Jesus didn’t practice it. What I’m suggesting is that it’s a simplistic view of Jesus’ leadership style. It’s one of many styles that he used throughout his ministry.

This week in Peru, we’re spending time on the idea of a leader as a shepherd. It’s a powerful metaphor, and I had no idea how many scriptures actually make reference to shepherding. Many of them were easy connections for the reader that have been lost on later, more urban cultures. The observations below and in my next few posts come from While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks, by Timothy Laniak.

In contrast to my assumed beliefs, the idea of watching and overseeing comes from the profession of sheepherder. Overseer has come to mean foreman, the person up the chain who assures the success of a broad project. It also has been tied to the connotations of a bishop, a term that suggests to me a position-driven leadership role. But Laniak says the term comes from shepherds, who spend the majority of their time watching their flocks. What looks to the casual observer as lazy inactivity is rather continuous surveillance, active attention and constant concern.

Shepherds spend their time looking for threats, supplies, disease and anxiety. They gaze in order to inspect, count and intuit. Laniak uses words like perception, insight, instinct and vision to describe the full picture of “oversight.” Simply put, shepherds see what’s not always visible.

There are some great scriptures on the qualities of this role, including Psalm 121, 1 Peter 2:25 and the role of elders in 1 Timothy 3:2. Most of them clearly tie the principle of overseeing with shepherding. I don’t know why I never caught that before. I think I assumed the apostle was using contrasting metaphors when he referred to God as both Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.

So, what’s Laniak’s point? He asks a few questions that I find personally challenging.

  1. Are we carefully watching our flocks or have we made the assumption that they can take care of themselves?
  2. In whatever leadership role you’re in, how much time do you spend on “in the tent” activities versus looking after and over the people in your care?
  3. How good is your vision? Are you able to notice trends in morale, signs of stress, anxiety over change, and woundedness from abuse?

As we consider those we have responsibility for, are we doing the job of a shepherd, attentively watching and seeing what’s not visible?

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